Dispatches, April 1999
"We're still trying to figure out how to achieve that balance of excitement and safety," admits Chris Schuster, an organizer of the downhill ski events at the 1999 Winter X Games in Crested Butte. Clearly the excitement won out as, from January 14 to 18, television audiences were treated to dozens of midrace collisions involving skiers, stacked six abreast, scorching through a narrow chute at 25 miles an hour. The results read like a Saturday-night trauma report from an emergency room: four season-ending knee injuries, three broken heels, four knocked-out teeth, one torn-up face, and a half-dozen separated ribs. "In the X Games, you wonder who is going to get hurt, not if they're going to get hurt," says Wendy Fisher, who limped away with a bruised heel. "It's a weird thing that we all still do it."
Skiers, however, weren't the only ones popping ibuprofen. Black-eyed snowboarders and bloody-fingered ice climbers boasted some gruesome mishaps of their own, including an ice-ax incident that sliced open climber Jared Ogden's hand. Meanwhile, snow mountain biker Derin Stockton tore cartilage in his ribs during a qualifying run when a hard landing snapped his bottom-bracket spindle, sending him chest-first onto his seat post. "That was pretty ugly," says Stockton, adding the ultimate sign of validation: "They had it on the highlight reel!"
Many viewers are undoubtedly titillated by this glamorized mortification of flesh and bone. Still, it makes us wonder: Could things be getting a tad out of hand at the X Games? No way, reply tetchy officials, who point out that this year's injury roster actually represents an improvement over the previous winter's games, when nearly one-quarter of the field was wiped out in a single weekend. Moreover, it's a situation the athletes themselves seem to accept with stoic aplomb. "You have to put yourself on the line in all these contests," shrugs downhill skier Alison Gannett, who blew out both knees during a prerace practice session. "It's the price we pay." Adds Stockton, "People want to see crashes, no matter what."